SYDNEY, Australia (ABC News Online, Nov. 13) - The Federal Government has been accused of misleading the Australian people about the Turkish Kurds who arrived at Melville Island last week.

The Government has now backed away from its claim that the men did not apply for asylum.

At the beginning of the week the Government categorically ruled out that any of the 14 Turkish Kurds aboard the boat had claimed asylum.

But today, after an investigation by the Government's taskforce on people smuggling, Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone corrected the record.

"Some people did say things referring to human rights and mention 'refugee'," she said.

The Democrats Leader, Andrew Bartlett says it is a clear case of a Government lie.

"There was a clear motive from this Government to mislead the Australian people on virtually everything to do with refugees and asylum seekers," he said.

He wants a Senate inquiry into the issue and so does the Greens Senator Bob Brown.

"This is a case where the executive Government has clearly failed to put the correct information out to the Australian people," Mr Brown said.

The men have now applied for refugee status in the Indonesian capital Jakarta.

The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, says Indonesian immigration officials had given verbal assurances that the group will not be deported until their status is confirmed.

The UN refugee agency says if refugee status is confirmed, the group will be relocated to a third country. The agency and the Indonesian Immigration department have criticized Australia's handling of the incident.

The refugees claim they were mistreated by people they believe were soldiers after landing on Melville Island.

An Indonesian official says Australia is treating Indonesia like a dumping ground after the 14 men were towed away from the island.

Australian Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone rejects that description.

But Labor's Robert McClelland says Australia has insulted the Indonesians.

"It's quite frankly absolute stupidity to offend the Indonesians on this crucial issue," he said.

Labor wants an inquiry to probe what happened when the 14 Turkish Kurds arrived on Melville island.

Greens Senator Bob Brown has backed calls for an inquiry, saying he will push for the Senate to find out what happened on the boat.

He says Senator Vanstone's pledge to find out more from the Australian officials involved comes too late.

"Her credibility in this matter is shot," he said.

"There has to be an independent assessment and failing any other independent assessment of this I'll be moving for the Senate to do it."

The asylum seekers say khaki-clad men who they believe were soldiers shouted at them to shut up and sit down and put them back on their boat without food.

On of the men, Abuzer Gules, 27, said he begged Australian officials not to send him back.

"Thousand of times ... I begged them, I pleaded down on my knees ... I'm a human being, I'm a refugee," he said through a translator.

The president of the Milikapiti community on Melville Island, Gibson Farmer, says there were no soldiers on the island when the men landed there last week.

Mr Farmer says a group of locals pushed the boat away from the island and Northern Territory police and Customs officials did not arrive until much later.

"They pushed them out and then they left them there until the police came and the Customs plane was flying around, until HMAS Geelong came around - that was late in the afternoon," he said.

Les Woodbridge, a fisherman who helped move the boat offshore, says he was wearing khaki that day.

But he denies claims the asylum seekers were mistreated, saying they were given cold drinks and rejected an offer of food.

Senator Vanstone says whether the men asked for asylum is irrelevant because if such a request was made, it happened in international waters.

November 14, 2003

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